the book

posted by Michele

Keely O’Shannessy’s cover design

A local launch for MIRABILE DICTU took place 24 June in the Devonport Library with around 140 people present. We kicked off with Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘Samoan Star-chant for Matariki’ in blackout with drum and drone backing. Then the lights came up on 23 children (ages 6 to 10) from Stanley Bay School who read their Matariki poems to the enthusiastic crowd.

Selina calls the stars

Some star poets from Stanley Bay

Then it was time to launch the book and Peter Simpson gave it a good shove out into the stream. His launch remarks are reproduced below (thanks Peter). The proceedings finished with a performance of ‘keep this book clean’ that included projections of the smoking-enhanced illustrations in our ancient family copy of The Story of Doctor Dolittle, an excerpt from home movies of Urenui days and a rousing singing by all of the first verse of Me He Manu Rere. It was a great night and thanks are due to the Michael King Centre, the Devonport Library Associates and the Devonport Community Coordinator Maire Vieth for their generous support and organisation.

AUP publisher Sam Elworthy introduces MIRABILE DICTU

Peter Simpson launches book #7

Peter Simpson’s launch speech, Devonport Public Library, 24 June 2009

It is a real pleasure to be invited to launch Mirabile Dictu, the seventh book by my friend and colleague Michele Leggott. Seven is an auspicious number, I believe; at least dwarves, samurai warriors and the seven brides for seven brothers seem to think so, and what poet isn’t into numerology. Writing poetry used to be described by (was it Keats?) as “lisping in numbers”, and I don’t imagine things have changed all that much. Poets like counting; always have, always will. Readers familiar with the previous six of Michele’s books, and I imagine that counts for many people here, might notice some subtle differences this time round. Her previous books, well five of them anyway—Journey to Portugal is a special case—all had a distinctive square format, and all are exactly the same size, obviously deliberate. What’s so good about square, then? Well for one thing, it allows poems to have long lines without curling over the edge, as for example in famous early poems like, “An Island” some of whose lines were all of 30 syllables long—three times as wide as a sonnet. And having gone square once, it was easy to stay square so that all the books lined up prettily in a row, like peas in a pod. But not this time. Mirabile Dictu is both taller and thinner than its brothers and sisters.The thing about poetry, as we all know, is that nothing happens by accident; every detail of word, phrase, line, page is a matter of choice; it’s there for a reason. And the new format of Mirabile Dictu is no exception. It’s there for a reason.

Now, I haven’t spent the amount of time with the poems you’d need to analyse this carefully, but it’s obvious just flicking through the pages that Michele is favouring a shorter line. Take a look at the opening poem, “work for the living”; nearly all the lines are shorter than a pentameter and most are six or seven syllables: same with the last, “more like wellington every day”, and most of those in between. This is not exactly a new voice, but it’s a sign that Leggott is on the move, the lines tumble on top of one another, and into long juicy paragraphs, and further into page after page. None is a as short as a page, many are two, three, four, five, six, even eight pages long, and the pages pile up too. None of your 48 pages, 56 pages, or 62 pages of her first three books. You’d have to add those three together to get a book as big as this one. 154 pages, no less, the size of a novella. Clearly this is a woman who’s got a lot to say, and she wants to get on with it, briskly stepping it out line after line page after page.

Of course now that she carries the big blue stick, Te Kikorangi, of the poet laureateship, she can seize the occasion, command respect, order us to lend her our ears. I think this laureateship has been a benefit to Michele. I think it has given her confidence, a strong sense that words do matter, if we choose the best ones and put them down in their best order as she does, line after line page after page. I sense this new assurance in the poems, they know we are going to be all ears, hanging on every word, even if it takes three, five or eight pages to get to where it’s going. And speaking of coming and going, I’m struck by what a mobile collection this is. It’s always on the move—now up North, now down to Taranaki, or Hawke’s Bay, now in New Brighton, now in Rome, then Florence, then Venice, then back to more familiar parts: Rangitoto, Whatipu, Day’s Bay, Ohakune. The very first poem in the book is a car journey north, with a bunch of poets for company, heading for a funeral (Hone Tuwhare’s as it happens). The last poem in the book is also a journey by car and train, this time for a wedding among the olive groves. Two journeys—one north one south, one to a poet’s funeral, the other to a family wedding. Hey, this is not coincidental, this is deliberate, she planned it that way. And these two poems slyly introduce us to one of the big themes of this book, which we might describe as the family of poetry, and the poetry of families. We meet dozens of poets in this book; one whole poem is devoted to the north shore tribe, from Robin Hyde to Mary Stanley to Jack Ross, and heaps of others show up, John Newton, Bernadette Hall, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, Rilke by the Spanish Steps in Rome and Ezra Pound on a gravestone in the cemetery Island of Venice. Poetry itself is never far from the topic of conversation, due no doubt to the challenges and opportunities of the big blue stick. And as for the poetry of families, that is present in this book in spades, as Michele searches family archives to put her mother and father and aunts and great aunts onto the page, often in their very own words, in a wonderfully moving series of poems.

Perhaps I could end with reference to just two more poems; The title poem “mirabile dictu”, and the one whose title is a translation of that phrase, “wonderful to relate”. The counters among you will not fail to notice that “mirabile dictu” is the third poem, while “wonderful to relate” is the third to last. Perhaps we can think of these two as the “Il Penseroso” and “L’Allegro” of John Milton’s pairing. “mirabile dictu” is a descent into darkness and blindness, loss and death, “looking into the eyes of my stone bird”; “wonderful to relate” by contrast, relays the miraculous discovery of what was lost, a daughter, and shows us a family ecstatically reunited in a wedding; a scene of comedy and fruitfulness like the end of a Shakespearean tragicomedy such as The Winter’s Tale. These two poems, the descent into a lonely world of darkness and despair; the entry into a scene of reunion and joy, establish the polarities between which this wonderful book moves, with its great richness of character and scene, and the tremendous verve of its language. It is a book worthy of a laureate: the big blue stick has spoken. Open your purses and buy!

MIRABILE DICTU cover courtsey of AUP
All photos by Maire Vieth

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